By Margaux Henquinet
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — On the Monteverde zone’s Pacific slope, the strangler fig trees of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the mangroves of Punta Morales off the Gulf of Nicoya are separated by about 1,850 vertical meters.
The land between them is a mix of forest and pasture, hills and flatland. The highest areas are cold and misty, while the area down by the gulf can be scorchingly hot.
Decades ago, most of that land was covered in forest, but now years and years of landowners clearing land to raise cattle and crops have left it with only patches of trees.
The loss creates problems for the endangered three-wattled bellbird, known in Spanish as the “pajaro campana.”
For six months of the year, the bird lives on the Caribbean side of the Monteverde zone, where it can move throughout a big rainforest. For the other six months, though, it lives on the deforested Pacific side.
But thanks to the efforts of groups of conservationists, researchers, landowners, volunteers and more, the bellbird now has a chance of someday having forests to enjoy all 12 months of the year.
Rebuilding the forest
In 2007, seven organizations joined to establish the Corredor Biológico Pájaro Campana, or the Bellbird Biological Corridor.
The main focus of the project is to create interconnected parts of forest all the way down to the mangroves in the Gulf of Nicoya, said Evelyn Casares Cespedes, president of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation, also known as the Fundación Conservacionista Costariccanse or the FCC.
The FCC is one of the project’s founders, along with the Tropical Science Center, the Monteverde Conservation League, the Monteverde Institute, the Santa Elena Biological Reserve, the University of Georgia and MINAET, the country’s governmental branch for natural resource management, according to the FCC’s website.
A woman from Atlanta helped buy the corridor’s first piece of land, said Victorino Molina Rojas, a naturalist and a member of the FCC’s Board of Directors.
The rest of the land was bought in pieces, using money from donors as well as grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Molina said.
Today, the corridor covers 66,000 hectares. All in all, it contains at least 10 different life zones.
The corridor is also home to 25 communities, including San Luis, Guacimal and Punta Morales.
More than 16,000 people live there, according to Casares.
In years past, most of the money raised for the project was used to buy land, Molina said. Today, most is spent to plant trees to reforest the corridor.
Project organizers also ask landowners in corridor communities to plant trees on their own properties. According to the FCC’s website, as of April 2012, the group had donated more than 123,000 trees for farmers to plant in pastures.
The project chooses fast-growing trees, and leaders learn which trees are low-maintenance — otherwise, Molina said, no farmers would sign up to plant them.
Molina said they mix in the three-wattled bellbirds’ beloved avocado trees when planting seedlings.
“We have to do a salad,” he said.
Far from the existing forests, corridor communities down near the Gulf of Nicoya are working on conservation, too, through efforts such as setting up sustainable fishing areas.
The ocean and the land can’t be separated, said Ramiro Segura of the National University of Costa Rica.
Project coordinators have facilitated exchanges in which families from Monteverde and the coastal area can visit one another’s communities, Segura said.
Educating corridor residents
The Bellbird Biological Corridor project also involves community education.
Casares said residents of corridor-area communities are taught about conservation and sustainability, the importance of the biological corridor and other topics.
Molina said project workers talk to leaders of organizations to get people to come and learn about the project, and to take action.
“It will stay in some people’s minds,” Molina said.
Molina said one of his hopes for the corridor project is to teach those people to protect what they have, not just for themselves but also for the future.
Project organizers also speak to groups of students, tourists and volunteers. Children and other volunteers get involved in planting trees; Molina mentioned specific volunteers who return to help year after year.
Casares said the bellbird project is part of a national network of corridors. It was started relatively late — the idea of creating a corridor was introduced in the 1990s, but the bellbird corridor was not started until 2007.
Still, Casares said it is nationally the second-most-successful corridor. She cited its stable organization and infrastructure, as well as the commitment of the directors and communities involved.
Its main accomplishment so far has been improving water management in the area, she said.
On a lookout near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, talking about her hopes for the corridor as she looked out over it, Casares said through a translator, “I see a completely rehabilitated area in a couple of years.”
She said she saw the area going back to the way it was originally, but in a more sustainable, clean manner, with communities integrated sustainably.
“It’s like getting something back that was forgotten in the ’50s,” she said.